Just like other aspects of Odyssey of the Mind, starting a team is a creative problem solving opportunity, and there is no one correct way of going about it. The following information, however, has been adapted from the thoughts of experienced program coordinators and a survey of coaches in North Carolina’s Odyssey of the Mind program, and we think it may be useful for those in MA thinking about starting a team.
Who selects team members?
The answer likely will depend on the preferences of the school/organization’s volunteers and on any existing traditions. Some options are listed below.
- Coordinator-Managed. One or more coordinators (parent volunteer(s), school staff member(s), or a combination) compile information about interested students and coaches, and match them to form as many teams as possible.
- Coordinator-Facilitated. One or more coordinators (parent volunteer(s), school staff member(s), or a combination) compile information about interested students and coaches, and then share that information with parents and coaches who communicate with each other directly to form teams.
- Coach-Led. Volunteers willing to coach a team find interested students and communicate their rosters to the coordinator, or handle the administrative role themselves if not part of a group.
- Student-Led. Although most commonly seen with experienced high school students, sometimes the students themselves will form their team of friends and then find their own coach or seek help to identify possible volunteers.
- Any Combination. Some programs use multiple approaches.
How do we get coaches?
The number of students who can participate in OotM depends on the number of volunteer coaches available. Finding enough coaches for all of the interested students can be the most challenging part of forming teams.
Coordinators often communicate the need for coaches:
- on written materials sent home
- through an Odyssey interest form (with a place for the parent to indicate their interest)
- on the school/group’s social media or website
- by word of mouth
- at OotM information meetings
- during PTA meetings
- at club fairs, or
- during other in-person events.
MA Odyssey is happy to arrange a presentation at your school or site to provide basic information about the program to parents, teachers, and anyone else interested. Many programs guarantee spots on teams for the children of coaches because this is a compelling method of persuading parents to volunteer. Although coaches most often are parents or teachers, any adult who is committed, capable, and meets any screening process for your organization can be a coach. Organizers may find grandparents, other family members, friends, or even community members who would enjoy coaching. You may also want to recruit alumni of the program. Don’t know any alumni? Contact the Odyssey Alumni organization to connect with alumni who may be in your area.
How are team members selected?
Whether organizers have many more interested students than team spots or an organizer merely needs to group students into teams with spots available for all of them, it may be impossible to articulate a precise formula for how teams will be chosen because of all of the potential variables. Those involved in selecting students often use a few or many of the considerations below.
- Children of Coaches/Other Volunteers. As mentioned above, many programs guarantee spots on teams for the children of coaches. Some programs extend this incentive to parents who provide a team meeting space, or a tournament judge. Other programs treat OotM as a parent-cooperative activity which requires some volunteer commitment, big or small, from every family.
- Coaches’ Preferences. Coaches may be able to choose the students they want to coach, or share characteristics (grade level, motivation) of students whom they are willing to coach.
- Schedules/Availability. The practical reality is that many team placement decisions are driven by the schedule preferences of the coaches and the availability of the interested students.
- Experienced/New OMers. Some programs give preference to returning students because of their experience.
- Team Continuity. Many programs strive to keep returning teams together, as long as they work well and want to stay together. Some programs prefer to have a balance of new and experienced students on teams, if possible.
- Grade Levels. Some programs prefer to keep students in the same grade level, or within two grade levels, on a team, while other programs allow any combination of students as long as they comply with OotM division rules. Some programs give priority to older students, especially in the Primary division. As a result, some students may be chosen to favor more mature students, to keep the team members close in age, or to provide grade level balance on multi-grade teams.
- Academics. Some programs consider students’ academic suitability for OotM, whether that means working at or above grade level, AIG identification, a teacher’s recommendation regarding the student’s higher level thinking skills, or a coach’s personal knowledge of the student’s ability. Most programs do not rely on academic information about students to form teams, however, either because it is not available to parent coordinators/coaches or because they believe that students at all academic levels have gifts and talents which can be used and developed in OotM.
- Behavior. Some programs consider a student’s behavior, particularly if it may significantly disrupt a team’s work. Parent volunteers may have limited information about a student’s behavior at the time teams are chosen, however.
- Location. Some programs consider the geographical proximity of the interested students if distance may make regular and/or extra team practices inconvenient. This is particularly relevant to homeschool groups and civic organizations, and possibly even some charter or private schools, whose students may be spread out across their county or several counties.
- Long-Term Problem Interest. Programs may share the synopses or full long-term problems with interested students and try to form teams of students with similar preferences.
- Student Skills, Abilities, and/or Working Styles. Programs may want to match students with complementary skills and abilities to maximize the team’s assets. This may be more practical for groups who know each other well or for schools with experienced OMers.
- School Personnel – Selection or Recommendations. In some programs, especially those in which OM is integrated into the curriculum, teachers and/or school administrators may select students with the academic ability and behavior necessary to work well on an OotM team, or they may do so randomly or on a first-come, first-served basis. If the selection is done by parent and/or teacher volunteers who aren’t familiar with all of the interested students, current or former teacher recommendations may be helpful.
- Friends/Siblings. Programs may attempt to place friends together, or separately, to promote good team dynamics. Programs may attempt to place siblings together for the convenience of their families, or separately to promote good team dynamics.
- First-Come, First-Served. Programs may fill available team spots on a first-come, first- served basis, as long as all team members have compatible schedules and can commit to the team for the season.
Although some of these considerations are more commonly used than others, there is no ideal formula – even for the same program year-to-year. The goal is to form teams that work well together and allow each team member to get the most out of their OotM experience.
Regardless of what an OotM team selection process looks like, transparency is important. Parents who are new to OotM likely will be confused by all of the unknowns at the beginning of the process. With some advance thought and planning, organizers can tell parents at least which factors definitely will be considered, definitely won’t be considered, and may be considered depending on the mix of interested students. As long as the process goes forward as explained and organizers are open to questions, everyone should accept the results.
What are possible procedures in the process of team formation?
For individual teams and small groups, the process of selecting team members can be very simple. Many established programs have team selection procedures, either formal or informal, that have been working for them and they don’t need to mess with success. But for new programs looking for ideas or for programs that are dissatisfied with their procedures, below are some suggestions they may want to consider to make things run as smoothly as possible. Every program is unique; the key is to find what fits best with your volunteers and community.
- Initial Planning. Identify who will be responsible for the OotM team selection process. This may be one person or a team. Organizers must decide what procedures and considerations they will use, and set a timeline so relevant dates can be communicated. If the program is not new, gather feedback and suggestions from last season’s coaches and parents about the team formation process. If in a school setting, make sure the school’s principal is in agreement and keep him/her in the loop as the process moves forward.
- Communication. Organizers should choose the method(s) of communication they will use to let parents know about the upcoming OotM team selection process. Some available methods may include the school’s or organization’s website, social media accounts, newsletter, bulletin boards, letters sent home in weekly folders, class presentations, or announcements at school/PTA events. The organizer should know who to contact and about any deadlines or rules for any of the options chosen.
- Informational Meetings. Written communication and a contact number for questions are more than enough for many OotM programs, but others choose to schedule an information session for parents to ask questions and learn more about OotM. Programs may even host family events where interested students can do things like work on spontaneous problems, see examples of items built in previous years, and generally get a feel for whether OotM is right for them.
- Involve Teachers. Even if the program does not require teacher recommendations for participation, the organizer may want to consider asking teachers to recommend the OotM program to the parents of one or two of their students whom they think are particularly well-suited for it. Parents may get overwhelmed by all of the information that comes home from school, but a teacher’s note about an academic opportunity that is sent specifically for their student is likely to be noticed!
- Gather Information. Before an organizer can put teams together, he/she must know who is interested and gather all the information they will need. If the team coordinator merely facilitates the process, the organizer may only need the student’s name, grade, and their parents’ contact information so they can share it with the coaches. If the coordinator manages the process, the organizer also will need the student’s day and time availability for meetings, any volunteer roles the parents will take on, and any other information needed to sort and arrange possible teams. The organizer may choose to create a paper interest form that parents can send back to school, or create and link to an online form, such as a Google Form, which will compile all of the responses into a spreadsheet.
- Match Coaches and Team Members. In some years, all of the interested students and available coaches may fall perfectly into place. In other years, incompatible schedules and limited team spots may test the organizers creative problem solving skills! Communicate with coaches about potential team rosters before they are finalized and announced.
- Announce Teams. Be clear about whether the coordinators will communicate with parents of placed students about their team details or if the coaches will handle that. Communicate with the parents of students who could not be placed on a team, if any, as soon as possible.
What general advice do experienced coaches and coordinators offer?
- Communicating/Understanding the Commitment. The problem of students and parents not understanding the time and effort expected of OotM team members was cited as one of the biggest obstacles to forming strong teams. In written materials and any in-person discussions or events, be sure to stress the scope of the commitment, including important dates, extra practices, the importance of attendance and work outside of meetings, and team volunteer needs. Some schools have introductory events or meetings, or don’t discuss the long-term problem for the first few meetings so team members may drop-out and be replaced from a waitlist. Some schools require students to audition/compete for spots or to complete an application with questions that gauge interest and motivation.
- Asking/Requiring Parents to Volunteer. Many strongly advised asking or even requiring all parents to volunteer in some capacity before their child is placed on a team, either as a coach, assistant/back-up coach, judge, or tournament volunteer, or by providing a location for regular/extra meetings, or as otherwise needed. Coaches need a lot of support and don’t have time in January to beg parents to find or be a judge for their child’s team. Many states require teams to provide two judges, but MA only requires one judge and one partial-day tournament volunteer.
- Forming a Few Strong & Dedicated Teams is Better Than Trying to Place Every Student. Despite the strong desire to place every interested student, several respondents advised against stretching a group’s volunteer and student resources. Fielding more teams than a group can support can result in those teams struggling with attendance, participation, drop-outs, and students and coaches whose interests and personalities are not a great match for OotM.
- Start Early. Teams should not be discouraged if they aren’t able to start meeting until late in the fall because there still will be plenty of time to be well prepared, but it is great to get going as early as possible. The long-term problems are published in July and available as membership is purchased/renewed. Organizers can prepare any informational materials in advance and start communicating about the program or team as soon as the school year starts.
- Solicit Feedback and Be Open to Change. Even if an organizer or coach thinks everything is going well with the program, it is important to solicit feedback from coaches and parents every year. Know that procedures may change, or need to change, in some ways as the group evolves.
As one OotM coordinator shared, there is no perfect system. Think of the process of starting a program at your school or putting together a new team as an opportunity to creatively collaborate with your community to offer this great opportunity for the students!Follow, Support, & Contact Us: